What’s a humanities education worth in a digital age? Increasingly, students aren’t even bothering to ask. New data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows declines for six consecutive years in students earning humanities degrees. More than twice as many master’s students received science and math degrees this year than degrees in the humanities, a gulf that has widened to three times as many at the doctoral level.
Predictably, this development is being presented in the news as the beginning of a death spiral. What few are asking, however, is whether the humanities themselves can be far behind.
At first blush it looks harsh or farfetched to raise the prospect of an effective end to the cultural practices students of the humanities put under a microscope. Visual art, history, drama, and language have been with us, we intuitively believe, since the dawn of civilization.
Some of the greatest feats of human endeavor are almost universally acknowledged to be achievements in arts and letters. It is difficult to envision a world where those things don’t matter so much as a barbaric new dark age. But digital tech ought to inspire different and deeper thinking about the trajectory of the humanities.
AI Is Changing Which Skills Are Sought
First, consider the raw demand for artificial intelligence, the core purpose of which is to do sophisticated things humans do well even better. The ultimate in STEM training, the doctorate in artificial intelligence (AI), is still vanishingly rare. A recent study conducted by Element AI concluded just 22,000 such doctors are working on artificial intelligence worldwide, with a scant 3,000 on the job market. No more than 90,000 individuals on Earth—fewer than the population of Bend, Oregon—have the necessary skills to even work on AI projects.
Top tech companies are unwilling to sit around waiting for universities with competing priorities to crank out a mere handful of AI doctorate holders each year. Talk has circulated in recent years of leading firms simply starting their own training programs.
That’s just in America. In foreign countries trying to catch up to the United States, the need is even more acute for talent—and fast. This spring, Kai-Fu Lee, Google’s former head of China operations, announced a new joint education program with the University of Peking, the Chinese Ministry of Education, and his own company’s Sinovation AI Institute. Thousands of students could be ready for AI employment next year.
Obviously, the more AI experts, the more AI. And the more AI, we’re tempted to think, the more AI will do. Virtual reality (VR), many now suppose, promises an age when people will clamor to plug in to fabricated dreams and disappear into digitally powered fantasies. But will they?
A world in which AI rules is one in which tremendous new feats of engineering, prediction, and recall is likely to drastically lower the cultural status of the realm of the merely imaginary—whether products and practices in the world of make-believe are made and managed by humans, bots, or both. More than ever, settling into mere fantasy means reality will leave you behind.
The Digital Age Is Already Underway
Online, the vast majority of us are already starting to realize that the most impressive version of what we bring to the internet have already been put there by somebody else. Competition is hard enough. New research shows meritocracy means many people just opt out of trying to beat the best.
There’s little point plowing energy into dreaming up cool fantasies when everything has already been done, and when the opportunity costs of failing to participate in real life keep rising higher. Young people are reading fewer and fewer novels. Nobody watched the Emmys. The more you look for evidence that digital reality is a disenchanting fantasy, the more you see.
But what about play? Surely the human hunger for entertainment, especially in an era when it looks like we’ll have more and more leisure, will continue to be fed, perhaps now more than ever. Despite the superficial evidence, that intuition is likely wrong. Gaming seems more mainstream than ever.
But this is a false dawn for disappearing into someone else’s illusion. The more powerful digital advancement becomes, the more hollow and meaningless gaming life will become, and the round-the-clock consumers of such entertainment will become more like a discarded underclass. What’s more, making entertainment is on track to confer lower status, and lower pay, than participating in the continued transformation of life on Earth by crafting the robots that rule us.
How long, we should start to wonder, can people participate in such pursuits—especially in numbers so vast that the significance of almost every individual involved shrinks to a pinpoint—before a nihilistic crash or a come-to-Jesus wakeup call sets in? Rather than the world of “The Matrix,” where the amazing existence is fake and the brainjacked existence is real, the oncoming digital world offers the reverse.
How Do We Stave Off Meaninglessness?
Still, many people are unprepared to think the unthinkable about the new rules in the amazing reality to come. Many people simply do not want to live in reality, and to the degree they are willing to tolerate reality, they do not want to be amazed by it.
They do not want to be pushed in a direction where their basic premises—such as the cultural dominance of the humanities—are challenged. Digital technology does not care about these objections. And the sense of inevitability this fact has pushed into everyday life is driving students, whether they know it or not, away from humanities-driven careers.
Will anything from the humanities survive? Of course. Participating in rituals and recording human experiences aren’t going away any time soon. Expect more religion, for example. But just as the culturally dominant purposes to which activities are put have changed over the millennia, practices we associate with the humanities will change in a massive way again.
Things that would once be games will become real-world enterprises with real consequences. Things that would once be mere fictional diversions will become allegorical restatements of foundational moral axioms. Recreation will give way to training. Wondering will give way to worship.
Rather than fretting about the death of the humanities, creative people today should focus their attention on ensuring human beings enjoy a long and fruitful life even in a robotic age.